Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Editing survey: Now open

Readers of this blog are invited to participate in a survey meant to help assess professional priorities for journalism education. The survey takes less than 25 minutes to complete. Participants are first asked for some demographic information (such as age range, education level, professional experience, etc.) and then are asked to rate a series of sample sentences on grammar and style issues. Journalists and nonjournalists are both welcome to participate. The survey is anonymous, and your identity is not associated with any answers you provide.

Please write to me using the address at right if you have any questions, or proceed to the survey site (link below) to participate. Thank you for your consideration.

An ecstasy of fumbling

Here's one of those bizarre AP comparisons that just invite hed writers to turn on the fear spout:

International cancer experts have moved tanning beds and other sources of ultraviolet radiation into the top cancer risk category, deeming them as deadly as arsenic and mustard gas.

I'm at a loss as to where the comparison comes from. None of the scientists in the AP story seem to be making it, and other news agencies seem a bit saner. Here's AFP: A World Health Organization agency announced yesterday it has elevated tanning beds to its highest cancer-risk category. (Its later contextualization" "Along with tobacco, asbestos and alcohol.")

CNN stumbles on the grammar a bit: Sunbeds pose a similar cancer risk as cigarettes and asbestos, according to an international cancer research agency.

And the Beeb: There is no doubt using a sunbed or sunlamp will raise the risk of skin cancer, say international experts.

Here's a bit of summary. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has been holding regular meetings to review what's known about human carcinogens. The June meeting was about radiation; the one in September will be about lifestyle risks. Five groups are used to categorize risks (this list comes from Medical News Today):
  • Group 1: The agent is carcinogenic to humans.
  • Group 2A: The agent is probably carcinogenic to humans.
  • Group 2B: The agent is possibly carcinogenic to humans.
  • Group 3: The agent is not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans.
  • Group 4: The agent is probably not carcinogenic to humans.
So at this meeting, the IARC affirmed the Group 1 status of some kinds of radiation, but the big news, understandably, comes from a meta-analysis on UV tanning beds -- in light of which "the Working Group raised the classification of the use of UV-emitting tanning devices to Group 1, 'carcinogenic to humans.'"

Why arsenic and mustard gas? Well, the March review looked at arsenic -- the sort inhaled at the workplace or gotten in the water supply, not the sort your dotty aunt slips into your elderberry wine -- and kept it in group 1 (this report appeared in The Lancet Oncology in May, though I don't recall any comparisons to mustard gas or noir thrillers then). Mustard gas appears to have been studied in connection with lung cancer for quite some time, but outside the occasional sheer randomness of the AP, I have no idea.

It seems sensible, if we're communicating risks to the lay public, to look for comparisons that make intuitive sense. The Hun isn't going to fire tanning beds into your lines tonight. Harry Mars's enforcer isn't going to make you drink a sunlamp. ("Risky" and "deadly" aren't the same thing, by the way.) If you have to be metaphoric with UV radiation, why not stick with things people are exposed to by choice or circumstance (say, tobacco and asbestos), not hostile action?

Please, consign this lede to the dustbin of history. And while we're at it? Try to avoid giving "objectivity" a bad name by including this sort of thing:

The classification of tanning beds as carcinogenic was disputed by Kathy Banks, chief executive of The Sunbed Association, a European trade association of tanning bed makers and operators.

Has the Sunbed Association run a better meta-analysis? No? Then tell it to go buy an ad.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Theoretical Tuesday: Framing!

When it comes to standing up for Our Troops, nobody'd better get in front of Fox! Here's a tale* from Monday's front page:

No one knows first hand the horrors of war more than World War II hero Irwin Stovroff. That's why when Stovroff — who was held for one year in a Nazi POW camp before being freed by allied forces — learned that the U.S. government didn't supply service dogs for wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the 85 year old decorated hero from Boca Raton, Fla. made it his mission to overhaul the policy.

Looks like we could have some momentum building; here's a story from last Monday's front:

In his first piece of legislation as Minnesota's junior senator, Al Franken is looking to expand the number of service dogs available to wounded veterans.

Naturally, the frontpage links (they're all you know about the story until you click through) will help frame the issue for readers -- cue them in on what sort of story it is, who's on the side of the troops, that kind of thing. Right?

Uh, yeah. Saw that one coming, did you?

Leaving aside the question of whether "dogs" is a good shortcut for the gerund phrase "getting dogs for people,"** or whether "first priority" is the same thing at all as "first proposed piece of legislation," a service dog isn't exactly what you'd call a prototype dog. If you say "there's a bird on the picnic table," you probably mean a robin or a sparrow. If there's a penguin on the picnic table, you say "there's a penguin on the picnic table." Using an outlier as an exemplar of the category is so fundamentally misleading that you could hardly do it accidentally.

Dear friends at Fox, mind if we paraphrase a great American farewell speech? How about, in honor of the American soldier, you quit being pond scum?

* Unedited here, and pretty clearly unedited there as well.
** Is "Santa likes candy" the same sentence as "Santa likes giving candy to kids"?

Labels: ,

Monday, July 27, 2009

Adverbs gone wildly

They're cleaning out the files down at the cop shop and they've found a picture of Bonnie Parker ("the female half," we are reminded, "of the murderous Bonnie and Clyde"). How old is it?

The picture was distributed to law-enforcement agencies nationwide soon before Parker was killed on May 23, 1934, in a hail of police gunfire in Louisiana.

Don't think so. We can do "soon after" or "shortly before" with the clause, but "soon before" -- anybody else know this from day-to-day life? (Arnold Zwicky had a post on the topic four years ago, but it seems more interesting to ask about the circumstances under which writers and editors found this unexceptional than to ask whether it's a legitimate innovation. This is, after all, edited prose -- there's that Freep hyphen in "law-enforcement agencies," if nothing else.)

On to Charlotte for more grammar tricks:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fired his intelligence minister, and his culture minister resigned under pressure Sunday as further rifts emerged in his camp just days until his controversial inauguration for a second term.

Editing isn't always a visible craft -- reading an item thing closely, deciding "nope, nothing wrong with that" and moving it along might be exactly the right decision, but from the outside, it looks a lot like "not doing anything." That tends to stack the deck in favor of doing something, particularly if it looks as if you're following a rule -- say, "omit needless words" -- in the bargain. Here, we manage to save three words over the Post original:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fired his intelligence minister and his culture minister resigned under pressure Sunday as further rifts emerged in his camp with just days to go until his controversial inauguration for a second term.

... at the small price of turning it into utter nonsense! "Just days before" would have done the trick.

Thing is, in almost all cases, if you just wait a few minutes, you'll run across something that really, really needs doing. So here's another from the Freep's local report today:

Champagne, who served for 4 1⁄ 2 years as director, said he was an at-will employee and that White could have simply terminated him without cause, verses firing him for what Champagne called unfounded reasons.

At least, I hope that's an error that went unfixed. The alternative -- a copy editor spelling out "vs." so it conforms to style -- is too dreadful to imagine.

Labels: ,

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Zombie journalism

How do you write a lede on a Friday traffic accident for the Sunday edition of Collegetown's Baddest Afternoon Daily?

A motorcyclist who drove off a rural highway and crashed in Audrain County on Friday night remained yesterday in fair condition at University Hospital.

Got it? Let's try again:

A Columbia motorist remained yesterday in serious condition at University Hospital after a two-vehicle collision Friday just east of Columbia.

OK! We seem to have the "remained yesterday" part down. Let's look at the next two grafs of that second story:

The Missouri State Highway Patrol said that Driver the First, 67, was westbound on Route WW in a 1984 Ford Crown Victoria and collided at Rangeline Road with a northbound 2002 Chevrolet 1500 pickup driven by Driver the Second, 32, of Columbia.

The wreck occurred at about 11:30 a.m., the highway patrol said, and Second had failed to yield at the intersection.

Plenty of detail, wouldn't you say? Anything else you might like to know about this story? Like, say, which of the drivers was injured? Good thing we have Collegetown's Baddest Morning Daily to fill in the gaps:

Authorities have identified a Columbia man injured in a two-vehicle collision Friday morning in southeast Columbia.

Driver the First, 67, was seriously injured when a pickup truck collided with his 1984 Ford Crown Victoria at the intersection of Highway WW and Rangeline Road.

There's the small matter of the earthquake -- as in, if Rangeline and WW* has moved inside the city limits, should we be leading with the earthquake, or did the Other Paper overlook a pretty big annexation? But if you read both papers, you should get things more or less sorted out.

The morning paper isn't without its own strange habits. If the lede says "Two Columbia cab drivers were robbed early Saturday morning in northeast Columbia by a man who implied he was armed with a knife, according to a news release from the Columbia Police Department," how should the next two grafs end?

... the release states.

... the release states.

Ready to try it on your own?

A Columbia man was stabbed by his girlfriend Saturday morning in his home, according to a news release from the Boone County Sheriff's Department.

... the release states.

... the release states.


A 41-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of second-degree drug trafficking Friday afternoon, according to a Columbia Police Department news release.

... the release states.

... the release states.

Why all the stating? Looks like the World's Oldest J-School is still teaching the recruits that only people can "say" -- documents have to "state," though they ought to be "according to" on first reference. As far as I know, that's never been true in any flavor of English, but rules -- even bogus ones -- are easy things to teach.

Rulewise, I'd rather put my time into explaining why "Man stabbed by girlfriend" isn't the same hed as "Girlfriend accused in stabbing," but the bigger question remains: If we're trying to teach people to be good writers, why are we teaching them bad habits?

* Signage fail: I've never been to the fabled intersection of OO and AA, but every time we went to the Eagle Bluffs conservation area, we went through K and KK.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Pardon me, boy, but ... if the show is called "Peasant Opera," and was written and directed by someone named Bela, and is set in a "humble Hungarian village," what lyrics would you be expecting in the John Denver parody? You in the back there? Nation's Newspaper of Record?

Her confession cues the entrance of that cowboy (Tamas Deak), sheathed in black leather suggestive of Johnny Cash, an ensemble perhaps not ideally suited to his entrance aria, a sunny John Denver song. ''Take me home, country roads,'' he growls. ''To the place I belong, Pennsylvania, mountain mama....'' (Pennsylvania?) We also hear snippets from ''A Whiter Shade of Pale,'' as the relationship of this mysterious figure to the family sheds a newly lurid light on the prospect of Roland's marriage.

Our critic seems to have been perplexed. Too bad no one on the desk offered to make espresso:

A theater review on Thursday about “Peasant Opera,” part of the Lincoln Center Festival, misstated a word in the aria delivered by the Stranger as he arrives in the Hungarian village that is the setting of the work. After singing “Take me home, country roads,” in a takeoff of the John Denver song, the Stranger continues, “To the place I belong, Transylvania, mountain mama,” not “Pennsylvania, mountain mama.”

Ja, that does seem to make a bit more sense, doesn't it?

Labels: ,

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Grammar vs. grammar

Here's a ripped-from-today's-headlines reminder that not all rules are equal. See any grammatical problems with this lede?

The field of Democrats seeking to succeed Gov. Jennifer Granholm is expanding, as former Oakland County legislator and party activist John Freeman told supporters Wednesday he is an official candidate and needs money.

I don't like the random "as" (specifically, I don't like using it to join the present "is expanding" with the past "told"), and AP style -- yes, really -- calls for "that" when a time element, like "Wednesday," comes between "said" and the complement clause. But the big lump here is the adjective "former." Should it take a "narrow" or a "distributed" reading: Is our candidate a party activist and former legislator, or is he a former legislator and former party activist?

That's not a trick question, or at least not an idle question. Compare these two phrases, both captured in the wild:

former Republican Gov. Jim Martin
former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter

As long as you already know the players, it's not a problem. Jim Martin is a Republican who used to be a governor; Arlen Specter is a senator who used to be a Republican. The question is why -- given that we're supposed to be guardians of the language and all -- we leave coffee-deprived readers to figure it out for themselves.

It's not as if no one's paying attention to "grammar" in the story. Here's the last graf:

His wife, Amy Chapman, also is a Democratic Party activist, serving as Michigan campaign director for now-President Barack Obama in 2008.

The split-verb superstition is alive and well downtown. This sentence doesn't have a splittable verb, but burnt hands dread cold water: It has an adverb and an "is," so might as well look like we're following the rules. And there's an interesting news routine at work in "now-President Barack Obama"; at a guess, someone heard a ghostly editor saying "she couldn't have been campaign director for President Obama, because he wasn't president while he was campaigning." Whether you think that's technically true or not, it's pragmatically clueless. You're expecting me to know that the story's main character is a former legislator but a current activist, but you don't trust me to know that the guy who held an hourlong press conference on TV last night didn't become president until after the election? Please.

Moral: Saying "that's not a rule" isn't the same thing as saying "there are no rules." Edit for meaning, not for the vengeful ghost of the stylebook.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

From man to pig ...

Fair warning: If you aren't interested in another rant about the journalistic misuse of public opinion data, now would be a very good time to check out the comics.

Who wants to hazard a guess on the offense reflected in this McClatchy tale from Washington? (That's Augusta, top, and Wichita, the only ones I can find that fronted it, but if you ran it inside, you're still among the sinners.) Here's a hint: What's the difference between this story -- "New Ipsos-McClatchy online polls find that patients in Canada are indeed much more frustrated by waiting times to see medical specialists than patients in the United States are, and slightly less happy with the waiting times to see their family doctors," and "Poll: Americans split on health care," from last week?

All right. To spoil the surprise, "Americans split" was a survey of a random sample of American adults, meaning we can make fairly accurate predictions about the attitudes of the population -- all American adults -- from it. What sort of sample does today's story represent?

The online polls surveyed 1,004 U.S. adults July 9-14 and 1,010 Canadians on June 5-7. They aren't scientific random samples, don't statistically mirror the population and thus have no margin of error. Rather, they resemble large focus groups to help see what people are thinking about a particular issue.

It's nice of McClatchy to say it so prominently, and in so many different ways, but the essence of the methods graf is that the story is a crock. We have no way of knowing which country is more frustrated with waiting times because we don't have the kinds of samples that allow for those generalizations. And if you know enough to write that these samples "resemble large focus groups," you ought to know that.

There is a larger point than just standard Washburo carelessness and wire-desk timidity. When we beat on the Fair 'n' Balanced Network for its reporting on public opinion, we aren't complaining about its poll results. Competently run national surveys -- consistent, single-dimension questions, asked of genuine random samples -- tend to produce very similar results, no matter whether they're funded from Mars or Moscow or Rupert Murdoch's private bunker. It's no accident that Fox and the Washington Post reported nearly identical job-approval ratings for Bush in January; random samples really do generalize to populations.

The trouble with Fox is that it cheats. It uses different sets of rules for outcomes it likes and outcomes it doesn't like, and it reports non-polls as if they were the real thing -- say, claiming a "landslide of support for McCain" in the "military vote," based on a self-selected sample from a nonrepresentative population. If McClatchy doesn't want to be mistaken for Fox -- that is, if it doesn't want to be known as the sort of outfit that makes stuff up to support its ideological preferences -- it needs to do a better job of playing by the rules. When you look from man to pig and from pig to man, you'd like to be able to tell the difference.


Service journalism

And thanks to the Fargo Forum for underscoring the importance of continuing education in These Tough Times.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lost in translation

Here's an entertaining case of how headlines go wrong, courtesy of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network.

Wondering how it was that "earmark" came to be "Hillary's favorite word"? Perhaps you should be. There's no mention of Hillary Clinton in the hed:

Report: 'Earmark' now a word in the English dictionary*
or the deck:
Merriam-Webster Inc. announced in early July that the word "earmark" -- used to describe pork-barrel spending projects both loved and loathed by lawmakers -- is now a part of the dictionary, according to a report.
(By the way? Don't use the deck to repeat the hed. Waste of space.)

And, funny, there's no mention of her in the four-graf story, either. But the second graf indicates that the story originated at the WashTimes, so let's have a look there.

In the print edition, the Times calls "earmark" a "congressional favorite," but on the Web site (odd, given that there don't appear to be any real space constraints), that's shortened to "Hill favorite." And at the Murdoch tabloids, "Hill" is a standard hed term for "Hillary," so ... ta-da!

Summary? Some perky editor at Fox saw a chance to a throw a stray dart at a Clinton and, heeding the biblical admonition, let not the right hand know what the right hand was doing. May it never be said that slanted and stupid are mutually exclusive.

The Times itself is a little too excited about this move by "Merriam-Webster Inc., guardian of the English language," perhaps because it sees a politically favorable Trend:

It's the latest sign that the practice of directing money back home for pet projects is becoming a potent political issue, and the editors at Merriam-Webster said they credited Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, for pushing the word into the lexicon.

Eh, maybe -- though given that "pork" and "pork barrel" for local-appropriation spending have been around since the Civil War, it's a bit hard to see a major social wave building. Maybe it's those special 4-D glasses worn during the 1A budget meetings.

There is a matter of some linguistic interest in this tale, though, and that's the thorough integration of singular "they":

In a 2006 report, the Congressional Research Service - beset by all the vagaries of legislative language - struggled to say what constitutes an earmark. They said it varies from bill to bill.

But don't bother looking for a picture to illustrate earmarks such as the now-scrapped "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. Mr. Pitoniak said they try to play it safe politically and wouldn't want to single out any project.

Style policy or style slippage? Anybody from New York Avenue care to check in?

* Think we ought to remind Fox that there is no "the English dictionary"?

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Elongated yellow fruit

Q: So, is Mitch Albom still an abominable writer, or is there balm in Gilead?
A: You make the call!

We yawned as we took our places around the dining tables. Someone handed out Popsicles. Then, as we licked the icy treats, our tongues turning purple or raspberry, we watched a big black-and-white TV set.

De mortuis: On clues and having them

A couple of examples -- all right, two papers' treatments of the same ill-conceived "analysis" -- from today's Cronkite coverage suggest some of the systematic ways in which news coverage goes consistently wrong.

First up, Charlotte:

Nightly news isn't comfort it used to be
Our nation has gone from the single, solid voice of Cronkite to a free-for-all cacophony.

No offense, gang, but when you buy out or lay off everybody over 40, you eventually end up with a newsroom for which history begins around 1986. Hence the deck above, which takes a vague assertion in the text and amplifies it into a wild generalization about the happy days when "our nation" turned to a "single, solid voice." There was no such time.* When Tom Lehrer sang about World War III, he invoked Brinkily and Huntily -- not just to rhyme with "frontally," but because of the prominence of NBC's nightly news broadcast. Before there was "and that's the way it is," there was "Good night, Chet; good night, David." That doesn't diminish Cronkite's importance, but it does raise questions about why journalism does so poorly at putting importance into context.

Which leads us, more or less, to the stranger assertion in the Freep deck above: "Everyman's newsman delivered empirical truth." It's drawn, poorly, from the highlighted clause here:

News has become a two-way street, something to create community around.

That can be at once productive and perilous.

It gives an exhilarating voice to the voiceless. Yet it also can foster consensus reality. If enough of us say it loudly enough, it must be so.

In the '60s and '70s, Cronkite was seen as the everyday incarnation of empirical truth – “a voice of certainty in an uncertain world,” as President Obama put it Friday night.

Catch the point? In Cronkite's heyday, news reflected reality itself, rather than the "consensus reality" of the Twitters and Intertubes that threatens us today. And that's a truly strange -- I'm trying really hard not to say "objectively absurd" -- assertion. Interactivity hasn't made news a social construct. News has always been a social construct. It was as true in Cronkite's day as it was in Benjamin Harris's as it is in ours. This graf from the Washington Post obit sums up the contradiction neatly:

Cronkite was often viewed as the personification of objectivity, but his reports on the Vietnam War increasingly came to criticize the American military role. "From 1964 to 1967, he never took anything other than a deferential approach to the White House on Vietnam," Gitlin** said, but added, "He's remembered for the one moment when he stepped out of character and decided, to his great credit, to go see [Vietnam] for himself."

The sociologist's "deferential approach" is the reporter's "objectivity": information from authoritative sources, resting on carefully selected empirical evidence and reflecting elite opinion. The routine of objectivity helped construct the reality of Vietnam in the same way it helped construct the reality of Iraq. Some of the bottom-feeders would have you believe that Cronkite was the father of Librul Bias, which is nonsense, but he wasn't the father of pro-authority bias either. He was a careful, hard-working, even-tempered (I think his disdain for the EyeWitlessActionNews genre accounts for a lot of the affection, and I can't disagree) journalist who played by the rules of social construction that journalists at the national level know and respect.

So why do bizarre assertions about "empirical truth" go unchallenged in wire stories -- let alone brain-twisters like this?

In 2009, trust itself, at least in the public realm, is an uneasy notion. We still desire it. But in an age of wholesale, instantaneous, unprecedented lying, trust may not be wise in evaluating information sources.

Probably because this story was presented as a "news analysis," and the problem with that is not that journalists shouldn't be allowed to have opinions, but that we don't have a mechanism for distinguishing smart opinions from dumb ones. From the sound observation that all opinions are nonfalsifiable comes the absurd conclusion that all opinions are equal.

Since it's a nice afternoon and I'm looking for ways to show that I'm not procrastinating, I'll go ahead and offer a suggestion. Journalism needs to stop carving its categories vertically -- into news, analysis, opinion, comment -- and start carving them horizontally, into competently constructed arguments and incompetently constructed arguments. The problem with news is not that it's socially constructed, or that it reflects human judgment in cases where Opinions Are Forbidden, but that it doesn't distinguish shaky evidence and bad argument from sound evidence and good argument.

I don't mean to suggest that that's true of all journalists, and Cronkite's Tet commentary seems a good example of trying to get things right through the fog. But it is the mechanism by which a "Some Say" story at Fox can be made to look and sound so much like real news -- or why a Trudy Rubin or a Tom Friedman (who, no matter what you think of his flat-world ramblings, knows a hell of a lot about the modern Middle East) ends up on the op-ed page next to a Cal Thomas (who simply makes stuff up when he runs short of evidence).

It might mean more work (and, as John McIntyre said last week in a different context, it might even require a bit of judgment). But I think we'd get better news pages and better opinion pages out of it. Care to give it a try?

* Not true of all systems, especially the BBC and its descendants. In its single-channel heyday, the main Israeli newscast could pull two-thirds of the population around the old electronic hearth. The interested reader is referred to Katz et al. (1997), 20 years of television in Israel: Are there long-run effects on values, social connectedness and cultural practice? Journal of Communication, 47(2), 3-20.
** Todd Gitlin, author of "The Whole World is Watching."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Kids these days

That defining moment unfolded Nov. 22, 1963, after Cronkite was drawn to the urgent, five-bell summons of the United Press International ticker in the CBS newsroom: Shots had been fired at the motorcade of President John F. Kennedy.

Bah, kids these days. Your Editor had to walk uphill through a swarm of pterodactyls to his first newsroom shift, and when he had sharpened all the quills and put whale oil in the photo machine, he sat at a desk in front of the UPI ticker, and an "urgent" was four bells. Five bells was a "bulletin."*

Attention to detail aside, wouldn't it be nice if newspapers could tell a big story without the need to make it the Biggest Story Ever in the History of the World in Space?

He led us to Saigon, to Jonestown, to Selma, to Attica.

He escorted us to all corners of the Earth, then he showed us to the moon.

As anchorman of the “CBS Evening News,” Walter Cronkite – who died at 7:42 p.m. Friday at age 92 after suffering from cerebrovascular disease – not only narrated a tumultuous era in American life, but presided over the instant that television achieved its potential to be the most powerful communication tool in history.

And that moment, as you've guessed above ...

For the next four days, he led a mourning nation through wrenching grief. For anyone alive in that time, the TV images of the Kennedy funeral procession, the salute of Little John-John to his dead father and the jailhouse execution of Lee Harvey Oswald are indelibly stored in memory.

Cronkite was still a few years away from being the top-rated news reader, let alone the Most Trusted Man In History, so it's hard to give much credence to his "leading" the nation through much of anything. (And -- ahem -- "execution"? Do you guys still look words up before you use them?) Apparently we've followed another of those fine old Liebling observations and thrown out all the type smaller than Very, Very Large.

I think it was William McGuire who best summed up the persistent urge to believe in big-effects theories of media: People look around and think, quite naturally: With all that media, there must be some effects. News, like other media products, tends to produce small, cumulative and contingent effects. A single broadcast, even one as famous as Cronkite's Tet commentary, doesn't turn public opinion around in its tracks. But consistently friendly reports from a variety of sources over a period of months can make a really dumb idea seem like the logical state of things.

One doubts Old Walter would have approved of all the breathlessness. And one hopes he would have raised one of those biased liberal eyebrows at the idea of leading the frontpage with the demise of a 92-year-old retired journalist.

* Ten was a "flash," but by the time I saw my first flash-level story, we had a real front-end system, which made the same annoying buzz for anything from "bulletin" on up.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Annals of Making Stuff Up

George Will adds to the stack of evidence discussed last week about the ideological use of language assertions:

“Bailout” is now both a noun and a verb, and FedEx characterizes what Congress might do for UPS as the “Brown Bailout.” But properly used, “bailout” denotes a rescue of an economic entity from financial distress.

True, or true-ish, enough. "Bailout" isn't a verb, but "bail out" is -- has been since the 17th century, to hear the OED tell it. (That's in the sense of bailing out the water; bailing out the boat is dated to 1840.) "Bailout," the noun, has a citation (as "bail-out") from 1939. So it's not untrue to say it's both noun and verb, but it's no truer now than at any point in the past 70 years.

What all this has to do with Will's point (should he have one) is more opaque. I'm going to categorize it as a sideswipe -- just an o-tempora-o-mores indicator tossed off in passing that the Language of Shakespeare has taken another hit below the waterline, and we know who we have to thank for that, don't we?

How does the Obama administration love organized labor? Let us count the ways it uses power to repay unions for helping to put it in power.

Yep. First the socialists took away your SUV, then they came for your primary care physician, then they came for your vocabulary. (I'm a bit baffled that a column purporting to be about the Obama administration spends so much time on what Congress is up to; I'm used to hearing "administration" to mean the executive.) What he's saying is that our thinking has been so warped by These People that it's showing up in language -- in language-myth terms, we've developed a new word for "snow."


Labels: ,

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Say what you mean

Symbolic 1A illustrations in general are a shaky idea. For one thing, the morning paper tends to arrive when we mortals are spending our cognitive resources elsewhere; if you're going to be subtle, you need to be subtle loudly enough to be heard in the upper deck. For another, they're often amazingly unoriginal -- as in, stop us if you haven't seen the health-care cliche (below) that got Orlando's attention today.

But if you insist on using visual symbols to invoke a metaphor, do it right. That's where the Columbus front falls short. It's trying to show the "housing roller coaster," but it doesn't. It just shows "roller coaster," and if you get into the heds and graphics and wonder why everybody's talking about housing, rather than roller coasters, you have reason to be annoyed. The photo has sent its message pretty well before the poor coffee-deprived eye manages to work back to the smallest of the type overlaid on the photo.

I'm not at all convinced that "housing roller coaster" is a good metaphor anyway -- going by the trends shown in the 1A graphic, foreclosure rates make for the most boring roller coaster in history. But the bigger problem remains: "Housing roller coaster" might have been what you meant, but it isn't -- visually, overall -- what you said. It's hard for type to undo what a photo has done.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Yankeesinterns are coming!

Gather 'round, kiddies, and we will tell stories about the good old days, when people called "editors" read things called "stories" until late in the night.

What did editors do? Well, they made sure writers were using the right words:

Buried where he lay, Carr, a Union casualty, somehow escaped re-internment at the Marietta National Cemetery.

I think what he missed was "re-interment," which is also known as "reburial." If I'm recalling it correctly, when troops are "interned," they're usually (a) still vertical and (b) in the hands of a neutral power* (though I'd want to look that up if time allowed). Whether he "escaped" internitude or not -- that's an ear call. Good writers are likely to get the ear call, bad writers are likely to lose it. Though if the Yankees had him fetching coffee and making copies all summer, maybe it's appropriate.

Editors looked for wasted words. Since we've already noted that he was serving in the U.S. Army and that he's dead, "a Union casualty" adds exactly nothing to the story. Needlesser words could hardly be found.

And editors recalled stuff from third grade:

His great-great grandfather, a Union soldier from Indiana, fought in the siege of Vicksburg in 1983 and, due to bad weather that ruined necessary paperwork, his ancestor wound up buried in an anonymous grave on the battlefield.

Look. I'm from the land of "Forget, Hell" license plates too, but -- 1983? Isn't that carrying the past-isn't-past thing a little far? The editor who thoughtfully provided a link to the Atlanta weather conditions but allowed the War of the Northern Aggression to extend into the first Reagan term needs to rethink some priorities. And whose ancestor is "his" ancestor -- the story subject's or the great-great-grandfather's? (Please remember all the hyphens while you're at it.)

Then there's the lede. Normally we're wary of whacking them too hard, but when the fluffs start to pile up in the text, the lede gets a second look:

Private Mark Carr, U.S. Army, sounds like the kind of guy who’s the backbone of any military unit — the loyal, consistent grunt who does the heavy lifting.

How did that discussion go in "Scoop" again?

"But you do think it's a good way of training oneself -- inventing imaginary news?"
"None better," said William.

Atlanta, like many (if not most) papers, has been hammered pretty severely by the iron ball. Good journalists lost jobs. Other good journalists are left to cover those gaps and whatever new ones are created under the let's-do-more-stuff-with-fewer-people philosophy. That said: Please, can we take at least one set of eyes, brain and hands away from updating the weather, writing minor cop briefs and feeding the Twitters (or whatever you kids do with your internets) and direct them back toward critical assessments of the actual copy in the for-real publication? Because if you can't even get the Civil War in the right part of the wrong century, you have issues beyond the ability of a multimedia platform to fix.

* "Sweden?" "Orr!" "Orr?" "Sweden!"

Labels: ,

Kill Poe before serving

Anything look familiar in this morning's NYT corrections?

The column also misspelled the given name of a journalist and venture capitalist who argued for more disclosure. He is Alan D. Mutter, not Allan.

Maybe it's this, from yesterday's NYT corrections:

A cover article last Sunday about Isaac Stern’s 1979 visit to China, chronicled in the documentary “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China,” misspelled the given name of one of the filmmakers. He is Allan Miller, not Alan.

Given the Times's well-documented troubles with Edgar Allan Poe ("at least 82" misspellings noted in the delightful "Kill Duck Before Serving," and they weren't the last), here's a suggestion. Any reporter turning in a story that mentions anyone named Allan (or Alan, or Allen, or Alun, or Allyn, or Ælwyne) will henceforth leave a major credit card with the chief of the appropriate copy desk. If the name turns out to be misspelled, the copy editors take the credit card to the bar.

Or, more practically, the Times could spend less time enforcing its more arcane style rules and more time -- on the apparently well-founded assumption that reporters can't or won't do it themselves -- looking up every Allan that crosses the desk. It'd be nice to get up to the coin-toss level of accuracy, at least.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Unseen Hand Club

An interesting post over at the Log today fills in a bit more of the ongoing tapestry of language-about-language -- specifically, how the commenting class uses linguistic features of political speech to shed light on True Motives and Meaning, whether or not the features in question bear any resemblance to reality (or to the speech of the politicians they're imputed to). Here's the lede:

For most intellectuals today, grammar is no longer a tool of rational analysis, but rather a source of incoherent metaphor.

Aside from the gross misclassification of Margaret Carlson as an intellectual, I agree -- with one exception. This particular set of metaphors is anything but incoherent, as the evidence the Logsters have gathered in recent months makes abundantly clear. It's at the point where I'm tempted to ask whether there's a Society of the Unseen Hand for grumpy Washington Post columnists out there that we don't know about.

You probably had a different name for it in your shop,* but an Unseen Hand Club is a secret society that you join by getting a particular phrase ("It was as if an unseen hand had ...") into print, preferably in a really creative and incongruous way. I think we have an especially devious one on our hands here, but it starts with technical features of grammar. If you haven't already, check out the Log's work on George Will and the first-person pronoun:

"I," said the president, who is inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun, "want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector."

... and Charles Krauthammer and verb voice:

"On religious tolerance, he gently referenced the Christians of Lebanon and Egypt, then lamented that the 'divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence' (note the use of the passive voice)."

Flatly fabricated and flatly wrong, respectively, but far from "incoherent." These are very well organized assertions about personal and political character, and they fit neatly into a consistent pattern. Look again at Will's lede -- "the president, who is inordinately fond ..." -- and the beginning of Krauthammer's second graf: "Not that Obama considers himself divine. (He sees himself as merely messianic, or, at worst, apostolic.)"

Now let's flip ahead a month:

Krauthammer, July 9: A fine feather in his cap. And our president likes his plumage.

Will, July 8: Seemingly confident that managing the competition of nations could be as orderly as managing competition among the three** members of Detroit's oligopoly, McNamara entered government seven months before the birth of the current president, who is the owner and, he is serenely sure, fixer of General Motors.

Incoherent metaphor? Hardly. I think we're seeing a carefully arranged meta-frame emerge -- the sort of metaphor by which a certain part of the population lives.*** And amid the serenity, the plumage and the inordinate fondness for certain pronouns, I'm half inclined to bet that Will and Krauthammer have their eye on membership in the Club of the Hand that Is Not Seen.

* Recollections and observations are welcome, particularly from you non-US readers.
** No, he can't count, either.
Brief off-topic rant: Please be sure to enjoy the entire Will column for a good sense of Will's shallowness and intellectual dishonesty. If he's that desperate for an example of naive behavioralism gone wrong, could we suggest the administration that thought the "democratic peace" was the sort of ironclad law that justifies imposing "democracy" at gunpoint? Thank you.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Orwell in the news

A burst of semantic weirdness on NPR this morning is worth noting, if only to make clear that Your Editor is Not Procrastinating on That Chapter. Mara Liasson is summing up some of the latest turns of jargon and politically advantageous language from Our Capital. She starts with "legacy securities" for "toxic assets," then moves into more interesting territory:

LIASSON: National security is another area chock full of Washington buzzwords that are designed to obfuscate rather than communicate. (Here we get a bit on the use of "overseas contingency operations" for foreign wars.) Writer Joe Queenan thinks political euphemisms like "overseas contingency operations" are Orwellian, and they drive him crazy.

QUEENAN: "War on terror" is very, very specific. Everybody knows exactly what it means. "Overseas contingency operations," which is what is the official designation now, is just stupid. what if the Taliban started doing this? ....

With all due respect, but -- are you out of your mind? The great advantage of "war on terror" is that it's anything but "very, very specific." It's everything from a metaphor to an actual shooting war, and it happens everywhere from the Afghan-Pakistan border to whatever those suspicious neighbors of yours are up to behind the curtains there. It means vastly different things to different members of the audience. That's why -- at least partly why -- it works so well.

LIASSON: Queenan thinks leaching political language of its most powerful terms -- axis of evil, war on terror -- fits right in with President Obama's nonpolarizing, inclusive leadership style.

Hard to see a case for deeming those the "most powerful terms" in political language (compared to "freedom" or "democracy" or "Communist," they're distinctly second-tier). They're powerful in a particular way, under particular circumstances, for a particular part of the audience. To assume they exert some sort of universal magic, you have to buy into a speech-act approach -- proclaiming a "war on terror" makes the War on Terror® a real thing -- that really can't carry that much weight. If "axis of evil" was that powerful, you couldn't purge it from the language anyway, no matter what Orwell said.

Nice to see NPR paying attention to the language of politics, but it'd help to spend a little more time studying the terrain.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

Don't even think about ending ground here

Some thoughts about Fox News and the rewriting of history and current affairs, but first this candidate for Mondegreen of the Year, thanks to Sean Hannity:

WINSTON CHURCHILL: We shall fight down the beaches. We shall fight down those ending ground. We shall never surrender.

Surely if you're going to ridicule that sneaking Maoist Al Gore for daring to invoke Sir Winston, you must think enough of the old coot to have heard, oh, something like "fight on the landing grounds" somewhere in the dim, dark past?

The Gore-Churchill thing is a story for Hannity, of course, because it's been a big deal around the right-wing wankosphere. Here's how Fox handled it Tuesday:

Al Gore: Climate-Change Fight Like Battle Against Nazis
Al Gore on Tuesday compared the battle against climate change with the struggle against the Nazis.

Wondering why you didn't see that in your favorite source of news? Two reasons suggest themselves:
1) The craven librul media are covering up for one of their idols again!
2) It never happened. Al Gore didn't compare climate change to Hitler -- at least, not outside the fevered little minds of the Murdoch press.

I'm going with Door No. 2. This is another case in which some elements of the (ahem) British media have taken a few light liberties with what went on, meaning that by the time it reaches Fox territory, no one's going to go back and do any verifying. There's no need to -- it's in the Times!

Except, of course, that it isn't -- in the Times, that is. Odd, the link says "likens climate change to battle against Nazis," but the Times article online has the tamer -- and actually true -- "Al Gore invokes spirit of Churchill in battle against climate change." Nor does Gore seem to invoke the H-word in the text:

Speaking in Oxford at the Smith School World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment, sponsored by The Times, Mr Gore said: “Winston Churchill aroused this nation in heroic fashion to save civilisation in World War Two. We have everything we need except political will, but political will is a renewable resource.”

Mr Gore admitted that it was difficult to persuade the public that the threat from climate change was as urgent as that from Hitler.

How much of that he "admitted" is open to debate. The hosts don't seem to have posted a transcript, but Gore doesn't say any such thing in the video at the Times site, and there's no further indication (I'm looking at reports from the Scotsman and Press Association as well) that Gore brought Hitler into things. And when some public whackjob invokes Hitler, it's standard journalistic practice to provide a supporting quote or two (as the Guardian does here). Absent some such evidence, I'm inclined to categorize the admission as primarily rhetorical stretch on the writer's part -- but it's the sort that allows Fox to produce an out-and-out lie without actually having to, you know, lie or anything.

It's hardly unusual to catch Fox making stuff up about people it doesn't like, but there's a bit of delightful irony in this one. For one, Hannity is a spear carrier for a political faction that excelled in hijacking Churchill for its own purposes. Here's the New York Post in February 2003:

Tony Blair's not the first British leader to risk political disaster by saying things his people weren't ready to hear. Winston Churchill, in the mid-1930s, repeatedly warned that Germany was re-arming, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, and would eventually march across Europe once more. For that he was hooted down in Parliament and ridiculed, even by his own party, as a demagogic alarmist.

Well, sorta. But Churchill, a realist,
was talking about a large continental power that had reached air parity with Britain by 1935 and was soon to surpass it -- not a onetime regional power in the Middle East whose airspace was effectively owned by its antagonists. It's hard to imagine Churchill demanding an invasion of Iraq in 2003, because Churchill was not an idiot.

Which brings us to the second point. Churchill wasn't just ridiculed by "his own party" (to the extent that was true in the first place; for a notional exile, he retained a very high level of access); he was an object of scorn for the American right. The cartoon above,* from Bertie McCormick's Chicago Tribune, is a typical depiction: Churchill is ready to let anyone else's boys die -- that'll be yours, Mr. and Mrs. America -- in the interest of some obscure European tribal war that we're well advised to stay out of. Nor was Col. McCormick alone. His Patterson cousins, who owned the largest papers in New York and Washington, were as virulently anti-Roosevelt and anti-intervention as he was. If the Big American Media look "liberal" today, that's partly because they were so monolithically right-wing for much of their history.

Sean Hannity isn't the kind of guy who would have been comforting Churchill in the Tory wilderness; his ilk were in the isolationist camp until the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. Supporting the troops? When the Reuben James was sunk, they were writing the "We asked for it" heds in the Tribune. It's a pity Churchill -- no mean hand with the ad hominem attack -- isn't around to tee Hannity up for the lying gasbag that he is.

* Nov. 4, 1941. The cartoonist, Carey Orr, later won a Pulitzer; one of his post-Pearl Harbor cartoons provided the main title for John Dower's outstanding "War Without Mercy: Race and power in the Pacific war."

Labels: ,

Up with this is now put?

There's something about NYT corrections that makes garden-variety NYT prose seem to crackle with literary fire by comparison:

Because of an editing error, the Châteauroux Journal article last Monday, about the American influence in Châteauroux, France, formerly the site of the largest American military base in postwar Europe, misstated the size of a stone cellar that once housed a dance hall beneath the Joe from Maine hamburger restaurant, founded by an American G.I. and his French wife.

An article on Friday about the intersecting lives of Johanna Justin-Jinich, a Wesleyan University student fatally shot inside a campus bookstore, and Stephen P. Morgan, the man accused of killing her, included an erroneous location from a city official for the discovery of a computer belonging to Mr. Morgan, and misstated the location where his journal, which contained threats to Ms. Justin-Jinich and others, was found by the police.

These two weigh in collectively at a cool 30.0 on the Flesch-Kincaid grade level test, leading one to suspect that the Times has a policy of making you fall asleep before you figure out what the correction is trying to correct. What a pleasure, then, to see this sentence among the morning's crop of WWWs:

An article on Tuesday about the ecological role of beetles that are attacking pine forests in the West misstated part of the name of the climate organization that Steve Running, an ecologist, is affiliated with. Dr. Running is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, not the Internal Panel on Climate Change.

Not only are we down below 30 words a sentence, but -- is that a preposition with which that first sentence is seen by us to be ending? It's as if it had been decreed that corrections could now be written in language that is plain and comprehensible.
[NB: Edited in light of the comment below (tnx, Ray!) -- should have left the rest of the correction in place to begin with. My goof.]

Labels: ,

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

RTFFP, traffic edition

Oh, bother. Didn't we already have the discussion about ledes like this?

RALEIGH -- Here's one good thing to say about this bad economy: For the time being, our traffic isn't getting a lot worse.

Yes. So having thanked the recession for the decline in traffic deaths and airline delays, could we shut up with thanking it for stuff just a bit? Thank you.

But there's a bigger issue behind the cliche here, and "for the time being" is a hint. We're looking at the staff-written version of a story that hits the wires regularly, often with enough breakout information that it can be localized easily:

WASHINGTON--With exceptions including Charlotte, drivers are spending less time stuck in rush-hour traffic for a second straight year. It's the first-ever two-year decline in congestion as high gas prices and the economic downturn force many Americans to change how they commute.

"For the time being," "are spending" -- it's pretty clear that we're talking about (shuffle, rustle) July 2009, isn't it? Except that we aren't. Back to Raleigh's 1A epic:

The average Triangle driver wasted 34 hours and burned 22 gallons of gas while stewing in traffic jams in 2007. That's 2 hours and 1 gallon worse than in 2006 but the same as in 2005, according to a new national report on urban road congestion.

Commuters across the country cut back on their driving as gas prices rose sharply in 2007 and spiked above $4 a gallon in 2008. Pump prices are comfortably below $3 these days, but traffic counts have stayed down because we have fewer jobs to drive to -- and less money to spend at the mall.

Hmm. If our data represent 2007, why are we talking about stuff that was measured in 2008 ("spiked above $4 a gallon") or -- apparently -- hasn't been measured at all ("traffic counts have stayed down")? Wonder what the AP says:

Demographers attribute the decrease to a historic cutback in driving as commuters reduced solo trips, took public transit or carpooled after gas prices surged toward $4 a gallon and then the economy faltered.

If we asked "demographers" why those trends are happening now, you could see why they might say that. But that would have been more than a bit misleading. Going by the data provided with the study (see the chart on page 7), gas prices in late 2007 had fallen from their summer peak, but not as far as they had the previous year. And if by "faltered" we mean the month when -- it's official! -- the recession began, we're also talking about December 2007, the last month of the year our "stuck in traffic" data actually cover.

Granted, the abovementioned chart does suggest some trends into late 2008 -- but those are from 23 urban areas, not 439, and they suggest that traffic volume rose in summer (as usual) as people, in other ways, did what they often do. They aren't the data we get the "stuck in traffic" average from. So why do we have a frontpage story here?

Talking about traffic is sort of like talking about the weather. If you get on an elevator that's occupied by a stranger and you each want to assure the other that you haven't just escaped from a prison for the statistically deranged, it's really safe to bitch about the weather or the traffic. That makes it a good story too. Alas, in this case, it's a story that has almost nothing to do with the numbers that seem to have propelled it to the front. That's unfortunate, because if newspapers (and the AP, which shouldn't get off the hook here) would only take numbers seriously, they'd find it a lot easier to make sure that good stories were credible as well.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Paging Dr. Observer

And you went to medical school -- where was it again?

Go ahead and write this in the margin of your stylebook. Medical predictions in heds are forbidden under all circumstances. "Smith will recover" is not, and never will be, acceptable shorthand for "Doctors expect Smith to recover":

Doctors say the sole survivor of a fireworks explosion that killed four others on North Carolina's Outer Banks will recover from burns on his arms and face but will face a lifetime of therapy.

Report, don't diagnose. If you're having trouble figuring out the difference, please have your insurance information ready and hold for the next available operator.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The dying craft

Want to know if you're really a copy editor? Read this sentence:

The joint statement is the result of four months of negotiations between Russian and U.S. officials that began in London on April 1.

If your brain stopped at "April 1" to run a subroutine that subtracted "four months" from the current date and your subconscious reached for the memo-mode key to query whether "April 1" or "four months" (if either) was correct, yeah -- you're probably One of Us.* Likewise if you nodded along in recognition at this one that JJ over at Testy Copy Editors plucked from the Times:

Mr. McNamara is survived by a son, Robert Craig; two daughters, Margaret Elizabeth and Kathleen; TK grandchildren; and his wife, Diana Masieri Byfield, whom he married in San Francisco in 2004.

TK, for you newcomers, is short for "tokum," or "to come," meaning the information will be provided later. Writers use it when they're too busy or lazy to look something up or track it down, and they do it because -- stop me if you've heard this before -- "the desk will catch it." So if you've caught it, or done the math, or patiently fixed the spelling of whatever Allan or Gonzales or McEachern your star reporter is perpetually incapable of either remembering or looking up, or gently coaxed a participle off a tree limb, or reminded the city desk that Nixon wasn't impeached, or explained to yet another new hire why "Killer Arrested" is a really stupid idea, there's a beer in the fridge with your name on it. You can sit at our table.

It's a smaller table every time I look up, which is more or less the point of this week's comment by the Washington Post's ombud, Andy Alexander. The column is worth quoting a bit, because it sheds some light, however imperfect, on an aspect of the general Decline and Fall of journalism that doesn't get nearly enough attention:

Errors ... seem to have increased in recent months. A story referred to the "Democratically" (instead of Democrat-) controlled Congress. Another mentioned the Marine "Corp" (instead of Corps). A story on Arlington County's plans for the old Newseum building misspelled Rosslyn as "Rossyln" four times. A column about plans to fire a federal employee said he had "spitted" (instead of spat) on his boss. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter was described as a "ferocious" (instead of voracious) reader. A photo caption mistakenly referred to a boy with the odd first name of "Jacon" instead of "Jacob" (clue: "b" is next to "n" on the keyboard).

... The Post's copy editors are among the best I've worked with during nearly four decades in the newspaper business. But they've been badly depleted by staff cuts as the money-losing paper struggles to control costs. Those who remain are stretched thin while The Post expands to a 24-hour news operation in print and online.

Between early 2005 and mid-2008, the number of full-time copy editors dropped from about 75 to 43 through buyouts or voluntary departures. It has declined further since then, but Post managers won't provide precise figures beyond saying that six took a recent buyout offer. The need is so critical that most are being hired back on contract through at least the end of the year, and part-timers are taking up some of the slack.

In other words, it's not just "do more with less," it's "do more with about half." On to a bit of the standard tribute-from-the-daywalkers:

Copy editors are the unsung heroes of newsrooms. Unknown to the public, and often underappreciated by their colleagues, they're the last line of defense against a correction or, worse, a libel suit.

They're skeptics who revel in the arcane. [It's only "arcane" if you've never heard of it before, ahem.**] They know the difference between median and mean, [some do -- not that it helps when you're trying to convince Star Columnist and his/her editor that it's a distinction worth attending to] and can speak knowledgeably about topics from Methuselah to the Milky Way. [And why the sea is boiling hot, and why alliteration is a tool of Satan, and why that compound predicate shouldn't have taken a comma.] They write headlines, design some pages, check facts and make sure assertions are supported. They spend entire careers working horrible night-shift hours. [Yes. Now imagine that career in a state where last call is at midnight.]

"By definition, you'll see more errors when there's reduced staffing," said Bill Walsh, the A-section copy desk chief. On a typical weeknight a few years ago, Walsh said, the three copy desks handling national, foreign and business news could rely on perhaps 20 editors. Those desks have since been combined into one desk, headed by Walsh. Today, he said, "there are some shifts where I'm looking at seven or eight people total."

That pretty much speaks for itself, doesn't it? Bill runs an outstanding desk, but there comes a point where good doesn't matter; you simply have more fires than you have fire trucks, so somebody might as well break out the marshmallows.

The Post this week began moving to a new, centralized "universal desk" intended to streamline the editing process for readers to get information in print, online and on mobile devices. [Whenever you see "streamline the editing process for readers," be very careful.] Numerous copy editors told me they anticipate more errors will slip through as the kinks are worked out. [Yep.]

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli did not disagree that more errors have appeared lately. But over time, he predicted, a universal desk will be "more effective" in serving print, online and mobile audiences.

Here, I think, we're stepping over the line into the domain technically known as "irrelevant self-promoting rationalization."*** A U-desk will be "more effective" in the way most streamlining efforts are; it moves more stuff more quickly past fewer people with less time to attend to it and less effectively calibrated BS detectors.**** And Alexander is signally failing to push for the follow-up: What level of "m0re errors" have you decided is allowable for the foreseeable future?

It's a tall order. Small errors will continue. Loyal Post readers should continue to note them when they're small and complain loudly when they're large.

But I hope they also show some patience and understanding.

I don't think that's good enough. Loyal readers already are patient; they've earned an up-front accounting of what corners you're going to cut and what areas you're going to preserve. I want Iran stories read by someone who can do a rough chronology of the revolution from memory (and diagram a sentence) and Steve Martin stories read by someone who can tell clawhammer from three-finger (and diagram a sentence). If that means some, or many, stories are 10 minutes later getting to the Web or 20 minutes later going out on Twitter, fine. Give us the chance to be patient with that, rather than with the ever-more-lurid sorts of train wreck you seem to be anticipating.

* If you insisted on making the relative clause read "that began April 1 in London" because of the time-date-place rule,you need to get over it. Ain't no such rule.
** The Times is still fairly well staffed; this might just be a function of not having any banjo players on the right desk at the right time.
*** Or "bullshit."
**** I'm sort of extrapolating from one of those work-smarter-not-harder efforts in which the A/B desk got to cap off its Friday evenings with half an hour of editing and hedding high school football copy. Imagine the fun.


Sunday, July 05, 2009

Go no more a-maying

We've had some discussion of late about the merits of "may" heds -- particularly, whether some are better or worse than others. I'm usually inclined to say that all "may" (could, might, &c) heds are equally evil, because they all fall short in the same way. They're always negatable, and thus they're always going to fall short at the basic mission of the headline: telling you at a glance some way in which the world is different from the last time you picked up the paper. Somebody might sue, but then again they might not -- why is it exactly I put those quarters in the newspaper rack again?

On collecting a few for display, though, you get a clearer idea that "may" heds do different kinds of evil in different ways. "Bones in X's Tomb might be X" is always going to fall short; it's never going to be truer today than it was yesterday, while "tests date bones in X's Tomb to Nth Century" is at least going to pass the basic test.* But it's not as harmful -- to pick one of the examples above -- as "Legal aid group may sue over contract fight."

Here's how that works, sort of. The burden of proof for filing a lawsuit is, oh, whatever the filing fee is in your jurisdiction; you pay the 60 bucks, you can demand redress from your senator for all those Black Masses he conducts with the county comptroller at the crossroads at midnight ever and everfor Amen. The burden of proof for finding a gullible reporter and suggesting that by golly you're going to file a lawsuit Any Second Now is the former minus the filing fee. It's what you do when you don't have the evidence, the [erm] fortitude or both to actually make a formal accusation. There are two correct responses to "Well, we're thinking about suing" or "We're gonna charge the guilty bastard any minute now":

1) Here's my number; could you call me as soon as you do?
2) My deadline's at [scary hour here]. Is there a number I can call to see whether you have filed?

And needless to say, pace Gus Harwell, it ain't a lawsuit until it has a number -- meaning, among other things, that you can invoke the defense of privilege if you're quoting a real lawsuit or a real charge, but not if you're quoting (oh, what's that damn legal term?) so much hot air from cops or pressure groups. "Might sue" and "may be charged" go in the category of inexcusable deck-stacking. They are the worst of the worst, acceptable under no circumstances. Shun them without fail.

"Palin's resignation may hurt her future" is a different sort of offense, because -- you in the back there? Right. It's stupid! The resignation might hurt her future, and then again it might not! If we don't have the evidence or [hem hem] wherewithal to offer an educated explanation as to which, perhaps we should stick to what we do know (i.e., here are some supposedly educated guesses from some supposedly knowledgeable people), which might be the better story anyway.

And here's a third category of "may" hed (yes, sorry, had to dig around in the Fox files a little): "may" as a way of saying "you should pay attention to today's news because it might remind you of one of those Really Important Stories you've been demanding answers to." These heds appeared on Fox on consecutive days in October 2006:**

Body in woods may be missing Va. student
Body found may be missing N.Y. mother

Why? Because a really truly super-important story at Fox is going to look like this:

A badly decomposed human body discovered Wednesday by a cleaning crew on the shores of the Des Plaines River prompted speculation that the find could be connected to one of the Chicago area's high-profile missing women cases, and sparked hope for families looking for closure.

Bonus points if you can identify either of the missing-woman cases (the "speculation" was about two cases, though each case is about one missing woman), and no points at all if you recall that the remains turned out to be of the male persuasion, because you're just spoiling the fun. I mean, why waste a perfectly good body when you have High-Profile Cases you can speculate about?

I think we can conclude that there are no good "may" heds, only more and less awful ones. So the plea to editors remains: Why not talk about what is, rather than about what might be?

* Yes, it ought to have some way of signaling "plus or minus Y, at 95% confidence"; I'm open to suggestions on how to accomplish that.
** No, I do not make this stuff up. If I could make this stuff up, I would even now be sitting in my hot tub*** overlooking the Hollywood Hills and pondering where the next few billions would go.
*** All right, probably not. But there is that patch of land in Ashe County to think about.


Friday, July 03, 2009

Words of One Syllable department

Short answer: No. No, it doesn't. That's "it," as in no, your dog probably doesn't feel guilty, and no, that's not what the study says (which is "no," or, more broadly, "no such result").

What we have here isn't really a study of "animal behavior" but a study of human behavior -- specifically, anthropomorphism, or attributing human-like traits to something nonhuman. You know, like looking at the "front page" of a "major metropolitan daily" and assuming that what you see reflects "news judgment." And by all appearances, it's a pretty good study. But it's not on the front page because Austin has a regular process for vetting the week's peer-reviewed research (cognitive psychology, linguistics, epidemiology or whatever your favorite discipline), then giving the best play to the most relevant and rigorously conducted studies. It's there -- three weeks after it was promoted in a press release from Elsevier, publisher of the journal (Behavioural Processes) in whose special dog issue the study appeared, one might point out -- for, well, behavioral reasons.

The story isn't new by the time it reaches us today. It was reported that very week by the New York Times, Fox, the Beeb and UPI, in Mexico and Canada ("Pas de culpabilite pour Fido"), and in the Netherlands, Norway and Brazil.* But it did get a new boost by appearing on the front of the Washington Post this week, and those 1A budgets from the big-town papers do have an agenda-setting effect out in the sticks.

It needs to be noted that we're not talking about a bad study here (and since it isn't about using gummint money to study foreigners' sex habits, even Fox seems to like it). It's a neat design, and the researcher is appropriately cautious in talking about what it does and doesn't do.** (You'll note that she doesn't claim to prove dogs don't feel guilty, just to have shown that what's seen as "guilt" isn't associated with with the dogs themselves did.) But it gets a little boost from the press release, which calls the research design ingenuious, and another from the Post, which personalizes it with a dose of Elongated Yellow Fruit syndrome:

Many dog owners have had this experience: Arriving home, they discover their pooch looking sheepish, with its head down, ears pulled back, tail tucked between the legs, maybe slinking behind the sofa. Puzzled, they soon discover the reason: a favorite pair of shoes chewed to pieces, or perhaps the kitchen garbage can upended.

But is their canine companion really acting guilty? Or is this an example of people projecting a human emotion onto their four-legged friend?

And when it gets to Austin, it gets that Local Anchorperson touch: "Up next, the weather. And does your dog really feel guilty? We'll find out!" It's what you're told to do -- almost literally -- in journalism textbooks, which remind you that data don't mean anything unless you relate them to people and that scientists can't be trusted to describe their findings on their own.

Too bad, because the Elsevier folks do a reasonably good job of explaining it:

This study sheds new light on the natural human tendency to interpret animal behavior in human terms. Anthropomorphisms compare animal behavior to human behavior, and if there is some superficial similarity, then the animal behavior will be interpreted in the same terms as superficially similar human actions. This can include the attribution of higher-order emotions such as guilt or remorse to the animal.

The editor of the special issue, Clive D.L. Wynne of the Department of Psychology, University of Florida, explained, “this is a remarkably powerful demonstration of the need for careful experimental designs if we are to understand the human-dog relationship and not just reify our natural prejudices about animal behavior.”

Interesting, huh? But you can be forgiven for assuming from the headline that those aren't the reasons it was interesting at the 1A budget meeting.

Once again, not a case of Bad Science, and not an especially bad instance of journalism either. Just a reminder, perhaps, that dogs aren't the only ones who draw strange inferences about the interests of human audiences.

* In case you're practicing, the Portuguese for "study says" appears to be "diz estudo." One wonders how often balloon photos say "Up, up and away."
** And, of course, anyone who titles a canine cognition book "Inside of a Dog" is automatically invited to the next Marxist Media Studies Conference at Stately HEADSUP-L Manor.***
*** I shot a critical theorist in my pajamas last night.


Thursday, July 02, 2009

Subtracting from the sum of human knowledge

And this just in from far southwestern climes:

Waco ranks 15th on Old Spice All-Time Sweatiest Cities list
Sure, Old Spice is getting its name out to the public by doing this, but it has been kind of a fun annual “study” of the sweatiest cities in the U.S. This year, however, is also supposedly the last year of the eight-year study the anti-perspirant/deodorant brand commissioned, so in this final year Old Spice is declaring the Top-20 All-Time Sweatiest Cities.

Let's total up the balance sheet here:
1) Old Spice gets its name -- not to mention a mug shot of its fine deodorizing product -- under your "Waco Now " breakingnews breakingnews breakingnews logo.
2) You get to look like a complete dipstick.

Whoa, that was close! You're good! Wanna play again? Double or nothing?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Those darn kids!

Could it get any better than this? Desk mis- interprets the story in which staffer mis- interprets the epic in which the AP mis- interprets the data in which ... two or three more turns of the wheel and we'll have a perfect Escherian roomful of mirrors here:

Turn on, tune in, alienate your elders.

(By the way? When you can delete the lede with no effect whatsoever on how the rest of the text is understood, that's a sign. And it's not a good one.)

Texting, tweeting, social networking and other high-tech interests are apparently fueling a generation gap that has never been wider -- even during the turbulent 1960s.

If any of that is true, it could be mildly interesting. I wonder how we know it.

"Absolutely, I see it," recent college graduate Stephanie Hummel said of the division, identified in a recent Pew Research Center report on aging. "I think a lot of it has to do with advances in technology."

Oh. Well, if a college graduate said it, it must be true!

The study, reported this week in The Dispatch and other newspapers, found that older and younger Americans increasingly disagree on a range of issues, especially those centering on social values and morality.

That's our first mention of "the study," which sounds as if the Dispatch thinks it must have made a pretty big impact on you. And indeed, you might have seen it -- particularly if you read one of those papers that were clueless enough to lead the front page with it on Monday:

From cell phones and texting to religion and manners, younger and older Americans see the world differently, creating the largest generation gap since the tumultuous years of the 1960s and the culture clashes over Vietnam, civil rights and women's liberation.

That's the AP reporting on somebody else's study, and once again, if any of it is true, it could be mildly interesting. Problem is, only some of it is "true" in any reliable way, and the parts that are true by themselves aren't true in combination.

A new study released Monday by the Pew Research Center found Americans of different ages increasingly at odds over a range of social and technological issues. It also highlights a widening age divide after last November's election, when 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Democrat Barack Obama by a 2-to-1 ratio.

Think of a few of the things that have to be true for that graf to be true (not just the assertions about who's "at odds" with whom about what, but that all those age divides are increasingly widening). How does the AP propose to support them?

Almost eight in 10 people believe there is a major difference in the point of view of younger people and older people today, according to the independent public opinion research group. That is the highest spread since 1969, when about 74 percent reported major differences in an era of generational conflicts over the Vietnam War and civil and women's rights. In contrast, just 60 percent in 1979 saw a generation gap.

Asked to identify where older and younger people differ most, 47 percent said social values and morality. People age 18 to 29 were more likely to report disagreements over lifestyle, views on family, relationships and dating, while older people cited differences in a sense of entitlement.

...Younger people are more likely to embrace technology. About 75 percent of adults 18 to 30 went online daily, compared with 40 percent of those 65 to 74 and about 16 percent for people 75 and older. The age gap widened over cell phones and text messaging.

Are you starting to get the feeling that you ordered apple pie and someone just brought you Orange Junius? You should be. The AP's mixing up two kinds of data here: long story short, "what do you perceive?" and "what do you do?" And the result is basically a clusterf*** designed by committee. Let's flip back to the Dispatch for a moment:

Nearly eight in 10 Americans cited major differences between the generations, a higher percentage than in 1969, when the country was divided over the Vietnam War and civil rights, pollsters for the independent public-opinion group said.*

How do you get an answer like that? You ask: "Some people talk about a generation gap. Do you think there is a major difference in the point of view of younger people and older people today?” The wording was a bit different in the earlier surveys, but yes, we have a fairly valid and reliable way of measuring whether people are more likely to think there's a "generation gap" now than in 1969 or 1979.

That's not a ton of data, and if you're wondering why the AP's getting all breathless about the "widening age divide" since November when the previous data point is in 1979, you should be (actually, you should have been before you pitched the story for the Monday front page). Further, as the Pew folks have the common sense to point out, we have no way of knowing whether "generation gap" means the same thing today as it did in 1969.** That makes it entirely different from a question like "Do you ever use your cell phone to send or receive text messages?"

To sum the Pew study up in a hurry: Everybody seems to think there's a "generation gap." Most people think their age cohort differs from others on those values things. Most groups seem to think the difference is on "morality/ethics/beliefs"; older people are more likely to specify "sense of entitlement" or "work ethic." That doesn't mean You Kids have a Sense of Entitlement;*** it means that's what one group thinks about another.

So to combine that set of impressions with a bunch of self-report data about who sends what kind of message on which kind of phone should strike you as -- pretty clueless? Sure, except that the AP enlivened a boring weekend by creating a major trend piece out of this, allowing the Dispatch to make things even worse:

The methods of protest have changed dramatically in the past 40 years, said Hummel, 22. ... Young people today, she said, use Twitter, Facebook and other Web-based forums to communicate and express their views.

Our survey, of course, isn't about methods of protest, or about how people express their views. That's no more random than suggesting that those Plugged-In Kids are baffling the grownups, but it's no less random either -- which ought to be a giant red warning light, suggesting that our 1A story is a complete and utter fabrication, consisting of a few local people more or less supporting the points that the AP managed to torture out of somebody else's data.

It wasn't a story Monday. It wasn't a story Wednesday. Have editors simply decided there's no longer any point in asking writers to support their wild-ass cultural generalizations with evidence, or is there some other reason for allowing this stuff to skate unimpeded toward the front page?

* By the way? Please don't omit words at random. The AP's description, "public opinion research group," makes sense; "public opinion group" is just clueless.
** Not to be rude or anything, but -- jeez, have newsrooms now run off everybody who saw "All in the Family" when it was new?
*** Though if you don't put your baseball caps on right and turn that noise down, I might change my mind.